RENO, Nev. – A group that advocates separation of church and state is protesting a Nevada city's decision to provide funding to a church that Mark Twain helped build as a fledgling writer in the 1860s.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State contends Carson City supervisors' votes concerning the First Presbyterian Church violated the First Amendment.
City and church officials disagree, saying the money is merely going toward additional costs stemming from an agreement that paved the way for the congregation to construct a new church in return for backing off its plan to raze the original one.
Last month, supervisors voted to give $78,800 to the church for sidewalks, landscaping and roof repairs. In 2006, the city gave $67,700 to help with design costs for the new church, which is adjacent to the old one.
Americans United will consider a lawsuit if supervisors fail to rescind the votes, said Alex Luchenitser, an attorney for the Washington-based group.
"It seems to be a very clear constitutional violation," he said. "The First Amendment mandates separation of church and state. Public funds can't be used to support religious activity directly or indirectly."
City officials defend their votes, saying the money is designed to save the historic brick church and not support religious activity.
"Just because someone on the East Coast writes you a letter doesn't mean we're going to jump through a bunch of goddamn hoops," Supervisor Pete Livermore told the Nevada Appeal, Carson City's newspaper.
In 2005, church officials sought city approval to tear down the old church and use the site for a new one. They said the original church was structurally unsound and too small.
City officials rejected the request, citing its location in a historic district and its status as Nevada's oldest church building.
But they agreed to help the congregation with additional costs associated with constructing a new 9,000-square-foot church on an alternative site adjacent to it.
Bruce Kochsmeier, the church's pastor, said the city's money is "minimal compensation" for the church having to revise its plans.
He said the city's money wasn't being used to support the church and that it benefits all residents.
"Doesn't the door swing both ways? Wasn't it a violation when we weren't allowed to tear down our building?" Kochsmeier asked. "Wasn't that right of religious expression being squelched?"
Mayor Bob Crowell, who defends the supervisors' votes, said he'll seek an opinion from the city's legal counsel on a letter sent Thursday by the advocacy group.
The group said in the letter that a governmental entity can't help pay for the construction or repair of a building used for religious reasons.
Kochsmeier has said the congregation could use the old church for a smaller chapel and classrooms after repairs.
The group cites several cases as examples, including a 2007 ruling on a Boise, Idaho, homeless shelter by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Nevada.
"We're quite confident we would prevail in court, especially given the recent ruling by the (federal appeals court)," Luchenitser said.
The group will give the city a chance to respond to the letter, then consider its options if it doesn't agree to rescind the votes, he added.
At the request of two church trustees, Twain raised $200 — worth about $2,200 today — to help complete construction of the church by charging admission to his January 1864 "roast" of Nevada lawmakers in Carson City, the state capital.
At the time, Twain was a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise in nearby Virginia City. His brother, Orion Clemens, was a church member and secretary of the Nevada Territory.
Twain's nearly three-year stay in Nevada ended a couple weeks after the church was dedicated in May 1864.
Historic preservationists argued it would have been a mistake to tear down the old church because it's a rare link to Twain's days in Nevada.